When we all think about classic “Stark” qualities, for most of us at least our minds go first to Ned Stark. Ned Stark is introduced to us as Lord Stark, the honorable and cold Warden of the North, the quintessential northman. But the truth is, we’ve all been tricked. Ned Stark doesn’t have the qualities of a true Stark, of the wild North; he was raised an Arryn.
In fact, Ned was raised by the most Arryn to ever Arryn, the foolishly noble Jon Arryn. And in the end, even he was smarter than Ned. He didn’t bring his evidence to the queen, just to his overprotective wife who thought he was going to steal her only child away.
Think about Ned, think about the qualities that define him. He’s honorable and noble to a fault, to the point where he doesn’t care who he upsets so long as his conscience is clear. He’s dignified, and he believes in looking a man in the eye before he kills them. He believes in true knights and fairytale princesses, not terrifying monsters and Dothraki threats. He holds a grudge against Jaime Lannister his entire life for the foolish arrogance of a 17 year old. He loves and dotes on his children as much as he is able, but he was cold to Theon, making him neither a hostage nor a son, alienating him from the family.
All that Honor doesn’t sound very Winter is Coming, does it? No, Winter is Coming is not about preparing yourself for the cold ahead, it’s about the wild, frozen North coming alive again. Ned’s words are High as Honor, and he’s the heart and soul of an Arryn.
Ned’s children all see him as a role model (with the exception of Rickon who’s too young) and this affects them all in different ways.
Take Robb and Jon for example. For the two of them, Ned is the perfect role model but for the one stain on his honor; he fathered a bastard. For Robb this manifests most strongly with his relationship with Jeyne. He, like he perceives Ned to have, sleeps with a woman when he’s essentially married to someone back home. However, unlike Ned he’s not going to let a bastard besmirch his honor, so he (in a fit of I am untouchable hubris) marries his mistake. With Jon this manifests in his unwillingness to break the prescribed oath of the Night’s Watch - to bear no children. As a bastard born of dishonor he makes it his ultimate duty to prove being born on then wrong side of the blanket doesn’t mean he’s dishonorable himself. As living proof of Ned Stark’s dishonor he must be twice as honorable. Neither Robb nor Jon is pure Arryn, Tully, or Stark; rather the two eldest Stark brothers are a mix. Robb has the honor of an Arryn and a Tully and the recklessness of a Stark, but he is ultimately a king first and a nobleman second. Jon on the other hand has the honor of an Arryn, the impulsiveness of a Stark, and eventually, as Stannis becomes his role model, the stubbornness of a Baratheon.
Sansa, on the other hand, is a perfect Arryn storybook princess from the start. Of all the Stark children she believes the most strongly in goodness and in beauty. She is the princess in the castle in the air, who creates walls out of stories, who has to defeat life’s monsters to reclaim her birthright. There’s an intentional mirroring between Ned’s decision to tell Cersei about what he knows in the godswood and Sansa’s decision to tell Cersei about Ned’s plans to make them leave. Sansa feels wicked telling Cersei, but she believes she’s doing the right thing. She believes she’s honoring her promise to the Lannisters and her beloved betrothed when she reveals Ned’s plans to them. And Sansa, like Ned, is the most easily misled by liars because she believes everyone is as honorable and good as they appear to be.
Arya, on the other hand, is pure Tully. The things she cares most about are family (getting home to her family, to her brothers and her home), her duty as a Stark to right the wrongs of the world and deliver her own sense of justice upon people, and the honor of her family, her father, and herself. Even outside Westeros, she holds on to her Tully values. She models herself off of what she’s seen Ned do (kill deserters of the Night’s Watch), because its what’s expected of her; essentially she kills Dareon because he’s violated her Tully sensibilities. He broke the code of the Night’s watch and it’s her family’s duty, on her honor as a Stark, to deliver to him the punishment of a deserter of the Night’s Watch. Even her fight over Micah is because she feels like he’s her friend and she’s a duty to take care of him. For all her wildness, she feels entitled to certain treatment and certain duty in return because she’s Arya of House Stark. (Look how she treated Harwin when she ran into him. Despite the rapidly deteriorating morality of Westeros, he’s supposed to be sworn to her first. It’s reminiscent of how Catelyn treats the Freys.)
If you’re looking for your true Stark, the child you’re looking for is Bran. Listen to the tales of Brandon and Lyanna. They were real Starks, raised in the North by real Starks, and they’re wild straight through. Bran is the intense old wild magic of the North, he is the godswood and the direwolves. He was abandoned and so he has very little regard for others and his own consequences (see: Brandon and Lyanna) and is incredibly single minded and reckless to the bone. His fall kills the Arryn in him and out of his magic and abandonment, the Stark is born. When the Starks say Winter is Coming, they’re talking about Bran and his terrifying old wild magic.
As for Rickon, well, his role model is Osha, so what do you think? Rickon is wildling to the bone.